Endless hours at work left him perpetually exhausted. He always wound up home at the oddest hours feeling grimy and worn thin, and most of the time too tired to even take a quick shower to wash away the antiseptic smell of hospital that clung to him. All he’d manage to do was toe off his shoes and land face first on his pillow.
He turned his key in the lock and tried to be as quiet as possible as he dumped his bag and jacket onto the foyer floor. Arthur would have a fit in the morning when he tripped over them on his way out the door but Merlin couldn’t be bothered in the slightest.
Merlin rubbed his hands over his face and tried to get the grainy feel out of his eyes but it was pretty much useless. He wandered into the kitchen to grab some water out of the fridge before heading to bed. When he opened it up he saw a plate of carefully wrapped food with a post-it note on top.
microwave. 3 min.
Merlin rolled his eyes at Arthur’s instructions, succinct and irritating as they were, and pulled the plate out. He hadn’t realized he was starving until he saw the food just sitting there, waiting. He hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours and he probably could have eaten the cling wrap Arthur had covered the plate with.
Arthur had made a proper roast and Merlin wondered where he had found the time, or why he had even bothered. Merlin hadn’t been home to eat with Arthur in days. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d sat down with Arthur to eat a meal. A horrible feeling settled deep in his gut at the realization that he’d apparently been able to go days without Arthur and not feel the pinch of it in his heart.
It never used to be that way.
Merlin sighed and dug into the food with his fingers, he didn’t bother to heat it up. He was sure he looked a fright shoveling the food into his mouth at the rate he was, but the food was perfection and Merlin just wanted it in his stomach.
As Merlin chewed, his eyes scanned their flat. He hated that he felt like he needed to familiarize himself with his own home every time he re-entered it. But he needed to see a pair of Arthur’s socks tucked under the coffee table in the lounge where he always pulled them off and left him as he watched telly, he needed to know he was in the right place. Everything always looked so different by the lone light above the kitchen sink that Arthur left on for him. It was like the flat sort of collapsed in on itself and those tucked away corners seemed to disappear into the dark. Merlin hated the middle of the night.
Before he knew it he’d inhaled the entire plate of food and got up to rinse it off in the sink. He often wondered what he all did without being aware of it, acting on autopilot and stumbling through his life like a zombie.
Eating had taken what little energy he had left and the thought of taking a shower felt like an insurmountable task so he just shuffled off down the hall. Before he even got to their bedroom door he could hear the faint sound of Arthur’s quiet snoring. Merlin would claim on his life that Arthur snored like a circular saw if asked, just to irritate Arthur, but the truth was he liked the quiet lightness of Arthur’s snores. They were lulling in a way, and sometimes so faint that Merlin often thought he had maybe only dreamed them.
Merlin was going to pass right by the room and head straight to their guest bedroom, he’d taken to sleeping there lately to not wake up Arthur in the middle of the night. Arthur was always so damned crabby if Merlin accidentally woke him. But the sound of Arthur’s snoring made him stop and stand in the doorway.
Arthur was sprawled across the bed and even if Merlin had wanted to climb in next to him there wouldn’t have been room. It made him feel awful that he didn’t particularly care. All he really wanted was to climb into a soft, cool bed that was all his so he could drown out the world. He wondered where that longing for Arthur had gone. There’d been a time when it almost physically hurt him to be away from Arthur. His fingers had always crackled and ached, longing to touch Arthur, to hold onto him in some way. Now there was just a feeling of emptiness and of things long past.
Merlin sometimes wanted that old Merlin back, the one that had stayed up late into the night, for hours on end, not because he was studying or working, but because he couldn’t close his eyes on the sight of Arthur. He’d always been scared, in the beginning, that Arthur would somehow disappear in the night if Merlin closed his eyes. He’d wanted Arthur so much it made him dizzy, nearly sick at times, and there was a sort of horribly beautiful manicness to it. He thought he was living a novel; living a mad, passionate, unbearable life when really he’d simply been nineteen and in love.
After a few years things had settled, like they always do, and Merlin had found that equally beautiful in a way. The knowledge that Arthur would always be there scowling about having to do the laundry or cooking a pot of spag bol, that perfect sort of ordinary that meant he was grown up and alive and loved.
Merlin longed for that even more than the manic boy he once was. He wanted to go back to the time when he could yawn and feign dire boredom as Arthur rattled off the shopping list to him. He wanted to feel that boredom again because at least it would mean he felt something and not just the empty nothing he’d been feeling for so long. The two of them just living through scribbled notes to one another and a plate of cold food in the refrigerator.
Their flat rattled around them and it used to be loud, not with noise or their shouting, but just with them. They used to be loud, the two of them. Now all there was was silence.
Merlin rubbed at his eyes again as he pushed himself out of the doorway and headed down the hall. He’d left the curtains open the last time he was in the room and the glow from the streetlight illuminated the room enough so that Merlin could see just how full of his stuff it was. His alarm clock, mobile charger, and glasses sitting on the bedside table, his clothes and shoes piled up in a dirty lump in the corner, all his notes and charts spread out over the bureau and floor. Somewhere along the line it had turned from the guest bedroom into his.
Merlin wondered if Arthur had noticed too.
Thinking of you, my lovely. Chin up.
Merlin pulled out his phone and checked the date. The fifteenth, not the fucking fourteenth.
He let his mobile fall to the table as he dropped down into a chair and put his head in his hands. How had he gotten his days screwed up? And the fourteenth and fifteenth of all days? Tears burned the back of his eyes and threatened to spill over. When all was said and done Arthur asked pathetically little of Merlin, and he had never asked for anything on this particular day either but Merlin was always, always, certain to be there for him anyway.
Except this time.
Merlin looked up at the flowers and slumped back in his chair. Yesterday had been Arthur’s birthday, today the anniversary of his mother’s death, and Merlin hadn’t said a word to him about either one.
He had thought he had today to run out at his break and pick up a gift for Arthur, and tonight to take him out. He had had the day planned.
Every year Morgana sent Arthur two bouquets, one for himself and one for him to place at his mother’s plot when he went to visit her. She always covered up her kindness by saying Arthur was crap at flowers and would’ve ended up with a truly offensive arrangement if it weren’t for her intervention. Merlin knew though how much love went into that small gesture, and so did Arthur, and despite the day the arrival of the arrangements always made him smile.
And every year Merlin went with Arthur to the cemetery. He’d stand just out of hearing range but still within Arthur’s sight as he sat and talked to his mother. Merlin had always wondered what he said to her in those moments but they belonged to Arthur and his mother alone so Merlin had never asked, he had simply made certain Arthur knew he was there. And that had always seemed to be enough for Arthur.
Such a small thing and Merlin hadn’t even managed to do it.
The thought of Arthur at the cemetery all alone for the first time in eleven years made Merlin’s heart burn with guilt and sadness, and he couldn’t stop the tears that started to roll down his cheeks. He picked his mobile up from the table where he had dropped it and dialed Arthur’s number.
“Arthur, I’m so sorry —” Merlin said the second Arthur answered.
“Merlin.” Arthur interrupted him. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not. I got my days mixed up, I can’t believe I fucked up the days.”
“I said it’s okay.”
Arthur’s voice sounded distant over the phone, but Merlin could still hear the resignation in his voice, like Arthur hadn’t really expected anything different.
“It’s not okay, you should have woken me.”
Merlin heard Arthur sigh on the other end of the phone.
“When did you get in?”
“A little after four, but that doesn’t matter.”
“You were tired, I was gone by half past seven. Honestly, it’s fine. I’m fine.”
Merlin ran his hand through his hair then dropped his forehead onto his hand. Arthur and the word, ‘fine.’ Arthur was a huge fan of the word, ‘fine,’ and it always meant the complete opposite of fine. It was Arthur’s go-to word when he didn’t want to cause a fuss, when he didn’t want to talk about it, when he didn’t want anyone to know just how not fine he was. Merlin fucking hated that word, and hated it even more when it was used on him. Usually Arthur only spoke it to his father, or his co-workers; the people who didn’t matter or who didn’t understand him enough to be hurt by it. Merlin knew differently, and Arthur knew it as well.
“Doesn’t your shift start in less than a hour? You should be on the train by now.”
“I’m calling in. I’m coming to take you out to lunch, have you eaten yet? You need to eat.”
“I brought in left-overs. I’m fine.”
Merlin closed his eyes. “Oh god, the roast. Your birthday dinner. Arthur. Fucking hell —”
“I’ve got to go, I’ve got a meeting in ten minutes.”
“I’m still coming in, I’ll bring you tea - and some of those pastries you love from Helene’s.”
“No, don’t. Just go to work.”
“I already said, I’m calling in.”
“Merlin, don’t —”
“Arthur, dammit. I missed your birthday. Your fucking birthday. Your mother —”
“I said it doesn’t matter, don’t call in.”
“I’ll be there by three.”
“I said no.” Arthur interrupted him.
“But Arthur —”
“I don’t want you to come, Merlin. I’ll see you when I see you.”
Arthur hung up.
Merlin set his phone down and wiped at his eyes, his cheeks, and tried to stop himself from breaking down entirely.
Merlin knew Arthur would never say it out loud but it was obvious he was hurt and angry and Merlin didn’t blame him, although a not-so-small piece of him was angry at Arthur too. For being so passive aggressive, for thinking the worst of him and not doing a thing to disprove it, for being so silently hurt. Just once Merlin wanted Arthur to lash out, to yell and scream and make a big deal. He wanted a, ‘fuck you,’ not an, ‘I’m fine.’ He wanted proof that they were still there, the two of them together. He wanted proof that he mattered.
When Arthur was ‘fine’ Merlin felt alone and painfully unimportant, and that he was no longer capable of making making Arthur happy.
He dropped his keys on the small table by the door and made sure to hang up all of his things on their proper hooks.
“Hey,” he said quietly as he stood at the end of the small hallway the led from their front entry to their lounge. He tugged his sleeves over his hands and crossed his arms as he slouched against the edge of the wall and waited for Arthur to answer him so he could gauge Arthur’s mood.
“Hey.” Arthur didn’t even bother looking away from the television.
Merlin felt a headache building right above his left eye; a sharp, piercing pain.
“What’re you watching?”
“The finale of Bake Off.”
Merlin pushed himself away from the wall. “Is that one you like, the one with the hair, still in it?” Merlin asked as he arranged himself next to Arthur on the sofa.
Arthur shook his head. “Got kicked off two weeks ago.”
“Oh. Sorry ‘bout that.”
“S’okay, I saw it coming.”
Merlin pressed his lips together. Somehow that statement was filled with more meaning than he wanted to address at the moment. Arthur was a horrible mixture of disappointed and angry and Merlin thought it best just to keep quiet.
He wanted to tell Arthur he had arranged his schedule so they could do something for Arthur’s birthday over the weekend but he hadn’t managed to make that happen. All he’d been able to do was get the evening off, asking for someone to give up their weekend was like asking them for a vital organ. He also wanted to be able to hand over some amazing gift that would make up for everything, that would show Arthur just how well Merlin knew him despite his massive stuff-up, but he’d had no time to go shopping anywhere and really didn’t have a clue of what he wanted to even shop for. He looked over at Arthur’s profile highlighted from the glow of the TV; so familiar to him he could draw it in his sleep, so close he could reach out and touch him, but Arthur wasn’t giving an inch at the moment and Merlin had never in his life felt so very far away from him.
Merlin wasn’t at all surprised to wake up the next morning on the couch, and long after Arthur had left for work. He’d obviously fallen asleep not long after sitting down beside Arthur and rather than wake him and tell him to come to bed Arthur had simply covered him with a blanket and left him be.
Merlin remembered a time when neither one of them could fall asleep without the other one beside him, now it was like they couldn’t sleep unless they were apart. Merlin wished he knew when that had happened, and he ached to go back to that time and reverse it.
Everything was wrong and so far removed from what the two of them had been that Merlin started thinking thoughts he never imagined he would. Not in a million years of imagining. It was only seeing the way Arthur was with other people that made the impossible a reality.
They were celebrating Gwen’s birthday. Merlin was late to the party, as usual, and as he was making his way through and saying his hellos the sound of laughter stopped him in his tracks.
Something he was certain he hadn’t heard in months. Merlin looked up, his eyes immediately finding the source, only to find Arthur and Percy talking in a corner. Percy had obviously said something to crack Arthur up and there was still a bright smile plastered across his face. He was beautiful and the first thought to cross Merlin’s mind was, ’It’s not me that makes him look like that anymore.’
He had to sit down, his legs were on their way to failing him. Arthur wasn’t aware Merlin was there so Merlin kept watching him, taking in the sight of him looking happy. That was all they’d ever wanted for each other; to be happy, to make each other happy, and Merlin wasn’t even doing that any longer. The loss of it made Merlin unbearably sad. He felt a very essential part of himself was gone and he was left feeling immensely hollow.
When they had first met Percy, Merlin had teased Arthur endlessly about Percy’s crush on him. It was something that had always brought out a laugh and a smile to Arthur’s face. Arthur had always humored him with a, ’yeah, okay, Merlin, whatever you say,’ because for some impossible reason Arthur never saw what everyone else saw in him. The thought never crossed his mind that he was just the sort of person that can make other people fall all over themselves to be with him. Arthur was a magnet, and he was so gloriously unaware. It was that humbleness that drew Merlin so much to Arthur to begin with, it made Merlin stupidly happy that someone that looked like Arthur could have such a complete and total lack of self-awareness. It was endearing, and Merlin had loved it.
Now, however, all he could think about was how far apart they were and how much happier Arthur looked away from him. They had been together for eleven years, maybe they had run their course. Maybe they used up all their happiness. Merlin had never thought people could run out of love, but maybe the two of them had.
Merlin didn’t bother going over to Arthur; he felt unneeded, and instead he made sure to give Gwen another hug and kiss, wished her the best of birthdays, and quietly made his way out of the party.
The night was icy cold but Merlin decided to walk instead of catching the train. His mind was a mess and he hoped the shock of cold would help him wade through the things he needed to think about before facing the emptiness of their flat.
“Another birthday missed?”
Arthur’s voice floated back to him from the kitchen as he stood in the entry and debated whether he could go any further.
“I was there.”
Arthur looked up from his cup of tea and stack of files he had been going through.
“I didn’t see you.”
“I saw you. You were talking to Perce.”
Arthur tilted his head a bit and gave Merlin a puzzled look.
“Why didn’t you come over?”
Merlin shrugged, and sat down at the table. “I don’t know. You looked busy.”
Arthur sighed and Merlin hated how tired he sounded.
“Whatever. The kettle’s still on.”
“Arthur, we need to talk.”
“About what?” Arthur didn’t even bother looking up from the papers he was shuffling through.
Merlin didn’t answer right away. What he wanted was to reach out and grab Arthur’s hand and hold on, to rewind them somehow. He wanted to take a few last seconds to stay just as they were.
To just stay.
“I think you know,” Merlin said quietly.
Arthur’s hands stilled but he didn’t say anything for a moment.
“I wish I didn’t.”
They had talked, for half the night. There was no yelling, no recriminations, no blame. It just was. One minute they were together, and the next minute they weren’t. Such a fine line between a familiar world that made sense and one that didn’t.
What took the longest was the division of their life. Both their names were on the flat’s deed, so many things inside they’d bought together, all of it was so hard to divide. The game of, ’You take it. No, you.’ grew so tiresome that Merlin wanted to walk away from all of his things and let Arthur do what he would with it.
The things didn’t matter anyway. The only thing that was truly important was Arthur and he wasn’t coming with Merlin so what did any of the rest of it matter? Most of it Merlin knew he’d never be able to use or bear looking at because it would remind him too much of Arthur. The best option really was just to walk away and leave everything behind, start over anew, but he couldn’t do that to him. He couldn’t possibly leave him with the mess they’d made of their life together. Arthur didn’t deserve that heartache.
So together they plowed through it, each giving into the other because neither one truly cared about what it was they were giving away. Eventually Merlin had all of his things moved into Gwaine’s flat, and Arthur had all of his moved into his sister’s flat and that, as they say, was that.
Suddenly one day Merlin was standing in an empty flat looking at the scuff marks they’d left behind on the wood flooring and the nail holes on the walls and wondering how it ever was that such a small space had managed to hold his entire world for so many years. And how was he going to be able to step out of it and leave it behind for good?
Even the orange bathroom he had once loved then come to hate, and that Arthur had hated then come to love with a manic sort of glee that drove Merlin bonkers. But never once had Merlin ever considered painting over it because it would have been impossible to let go of that soft, knowing smile Arthur got every time he explained to a new guest why their bathroom was painted orange, on just one half of one wall. No one ever got it and it always made Arthur laugh.
“Merlin. Oh my God, are you insane?”
“What do you mean, what? Look at that.”
“The wall. The orange.”
“It’s perfect. I’ve always wanted an orange loo.”
“What normal person would have, ’always wanted an orange loo,’? Who thinks that?”
Merlin smiled at Arthur. “You know you’re terribly good at that, you sounded just like me. I’m well impressed.”
“Oh, shut it.”
“Who doesn’t think about an orange loo is what I’d like to know.”
Arthur walked into the bathroom and sat down on the closed toilet lid. He propped his elbows on his knees and leaned forward, the burdened sigh that accompanied the movement made Merlin laugh.
“My poor love,” Merlin said as he scooted around from where he was sitting on the floor stirring the dreaded orange paint to wrap his arms around Arthur’s calves. He gave Arthur’s legs a good squeeze and looked up at him. “So put upon, aren’t you?”
“Imagine living with you, Merlin. Imagine.”
“I know, I’m horrible. You’re so noble, so selfless, taking me on. I see a medal in your future.”
Arthur was still looking at the swipe of orange paint Merlin had put up on the wall with a pained expression. Merlin smiled and kissed Arthur’s left knee and then his right. Arthur finally looked down at him.
“But does it have to be orange?” he whispered.
“Yes, it really really does,” Merlin whispered back.
“I hate you.”
“I love you.”
“What if I told you the colour orange gives me a headache.”
“But what if it did?”
“Then I’d always make sure to walk in front of you and see that nothing orange ever crossed your path, but luckily you’re not that delicate and we can carry on with our day using our time in far better ways. Also, I get an orange loo.”
“But the white —” Arthur said. “It’s soothing, calming —”
“Like a sanitarium.”
“Every morning I’ll have to get up and walk in here and see that orange behind me as I look in the mirror and brush my teeth and get ever angrier that I have to go to work and that I’m standing in front of an orange wall and you’ll never want to sleep with me again because I’ll be in a perpetual bad mood. And it’ll be all your fault. No one to blame but yourself for your sexual frustration and irritable, angry boyfriend.”
Merlin got up on his knees and moved himself between Arthur’s. He ran his hands over Arthur’s legs up to his thighs, his thumbs lingered over the inseam of Arthur’s jeans.
“What if,” Merlin said as he started to unzip Arthur’s fly, “I painted only half the wall orange, that way you can stand in front of the white bit and be happy and horny and I can stand in front of the orange and be equally as happy and horny.”
Arthur made a noise deep in his throat as Merlin got his hand around Arthur’s cock and started to stroke it slowly.
“A very compelling argument.” Arthur ran his fingers through Merlin’s hair. “Tell me more.”
Merlin smiled and brushed his lips along the side of Arthur’s cock. “I have so much to tell you.”
“Can’t wait to hear it —”
Merlin jumped a bit at the sound of Gwaine’s voice. He turned to see him standing in the doorway and holding the last small box of Merlin’s things that were left in the flat.
“Yeah. Yeah, sorry. I’m ready.”
“I’ll meet you out at the car.”
“I’ll be right there.”
Gwaine gave Merlin a small smile and Merlin knew Gwaine was well aware that he wasn’t at all ready but was quietly giving him a few last minutes to himself by waiting for him at the car.
Merlin watched Gwaine walk away before turning his eyes back to the stupid orange wall in front of him. He reached out and pressed his hand, palm flat, against it. The stupid fucking wall. Merlin wasn’t sure he’d ever feel at home again anywhere if that orange wall wasn’t there.
Merlin sat down on the floor in the middle of the bathroom and closed his eyes, wishing for just one moment that Arthur was sitting next to him and he could lean over and rest his head on Arthur’s shoulder. Just one more time.
“Merlin, wasn’t your ex’s last name Pendragon?”
Merlin’s stomach dropped and he instantly panicked.
“Yeah, it is. Was he brought in here? Is he alright?”
The nurse pulled out a patient chart and started looking it over.
“I thought I remembered the name, a bit unusual that one.”
“Is Arthur okay?”
“Arthur? No, it doesn’t say Arthur, it’s Uther Pendragon. Apparently they brought him in last night, severe chest pains,” the nurse said as he handed over the patient chart to Merlin.
“Uther?” Merlin quickly flipped open the chart and started scanning it.
“No diagnosis yet, ACS maybe.”
“Thanks, Nathan,” Merlin said as he nodded at the nurse and slightly raised the chart towards him.
“No problem, thought I should give you a heads up. He’s one of your new patients.”
Merlin absently hummed his agreement as he went back to looking over the chart. Uther was in Room 497 and was indeed one of his new patients. It was just his luck too. He’d managed to make it over a year without having to see Arthur; both of them playing some sort of demented game of hide-and-seek with each other whenever their group of mutual friends would have a get together. It was always awkward having to ask if Arthur would be somewhere before he made his decision whether or not to go. Most of the time he had the legitimate excuse of work to get him out of going, but there were still times when he just flat out didn’t go because he knew Arthur would be there.
Morgana and Leon’s anniversary, Gwen’s birthday, Elena’s job promotion; all of their mutual friends, but really, more Arthur’s friends in the end. They had somehow come to a telepathic agreement between the two of them that the friends they each brought into the relationship once again belonged to them alone whenever the big celebrations rolled around. It was a fucked up sort of joint custody, and it meant each of them were always missing out on important days, but it was the only way they could guarantee not seeing each other.
Merlin would’ve liked to have believed they could have remained friends after everything because that’s what they were first, but having loved Arthur like he did he knew he’d never have been able to be near him so soon after the break-up. He’d needed time, and a lot of it, before he could stand looking at Arthur knowing he was no longer his.
More than a year. More than a year and still Merlin was unsure he could walk into Room 497 without his legs shaking. And the worst part was that after he’d realized it wasn’t Arthur that was sick or hurt a surge of happiness went through him at the thought that he’d get to finally see Arthur again. He missed Arthur’s face, plain and simple, and he wanted so very badly to see it again. He just didn’t know if he’d be able to project even a facade of normality.
Part of Merlin hoped that if someone was waiting with Uther it would be Morgana, at least that way he could give himself a few more hours to think about the situation and what he’d say to Arthur. Then again, if it was Morgana instead of Arthur he’d most likely get a massive lecture that would leave his ears ringing. Morgana had not been well pleased when she heard he and Arthur were calling it quits.
Merlin stalled a few feet before Room 497, he just couldn’t seem to get himself any closer. Only a nurse opening up the door and exiting the room snapped him out of it.
“Dr. Emrys, good morning.”
“Good morning, Emma. How’s the patient?”
“Stable at the moment. The poor son though looks a wreck. He’s been here all night.”
Merlin finally stepped forward. “He has?”
“Spent the night in the waiting room. He wouldn’t leave, though he seemed quite pleased to hear you were to be his father’s doctor. Do you know the family?”
Merlin nodded, remembering Emma had only worked at the hospital a few months and was entirely unaware of his and Arthur’s past.
“Oh that’s good news then, it’ll reassure the family to know Mr. Pendragon is in familiar hands.”
“Let’s hope so.” Merlin tried to smile at Emma but knew he probably failed miserably.
She didn’t make any further comment though and hurried off to her next duty leaving Merlin standing close enough to Uther’s door that he could look through the glass panel if he leaned slightly to the left. His heart started pounding in his chest when he made the move and looked in.
Arthur was standing with his back to the door and was staring out the window. The morning sun was shining in on him and with a sharp pang Merlin remembered the many mornings he’d woken up to the same sight; how he’d lie in bed and stare at Arthur and wonder for a moment whether he was real or not. Merlin was never certain he was at first. Arthur always seemed so perfect and so very unattainable in those moments. It wasn’t until he’d sense Merlin watching him and would turn to smile back at him that Merlin would finally concede Arthur wasn’t just something he’d dreamed up in his sleep. The mornings that Arthur would throw himself back into bed once he realized Merlin was awake too were Merlin’s favourite. Arthur would wrap himself around Merlin, cocooning him in their duvet, and press his face against Merlin’s neck making snorting, snuffling noises until Merlin would laugh - his sides aching from it.
Trapped in Arthur’s arms and laughing, only then had Merlin ever truly felt real.
Arthur turned his head and looked over his shoulder when Merlin opened the door.
Merlin’s movements stuttered a bit at the sound of his name coming from Arthur’s lips. How could he have forgotten that had once been his favourite sound in the world?
“Arthur. How are you?”
Arthur’s eyes glanced over at Uther before turning back to meet Merlin’s stare.
“Yeah, I know,” Merlin said. “Stupid question.”
Arthur waved away Merlin’s words as he walked over to Uther’s side.
“You’re going to be his doctor?”
“I am. Is that okay?”
“More than okay. I was glad to hear it when the nurse told me. I was hoping —”
Merlin stepped closer to the bed, closer to Arthur.
“I’ll do everything I can. Everything —”
“I know, Merlin.”
Just three words and Merlin felt all of Arthur’s confidence in him. It was like a balm and somehow it seemed like everything would be okay, that the two of them would be able to do this.
“I haven’t had much time to look over his chart. When I heard it was your father I was sort of anxious to get here, but then I sort of stalled out in the hallway.” Merlin blurted out.
Arthur released a small burst of air, almost like a laugh. “Merlin, how long did you hover?”
“Really?” Arthur raised his eyebrow and Merlin wanted to laugh at the familiar gesture that so plainly told Merlin that Arthur knew he was full of shite.
“Well, not overly long.”
Arthur gave him a small smile at his confession and Merlin’s knees just about gave out. He wanted to reach out and touch Arthur’s mouth, trace the lines of that smile, and remember how it used to be.
Maybe Merlin wasn’t as prepared for this as he thought he’d be. How he’d ever thought a year would be enough to get over that smile he’d never know. Arthur was a forever kind of deal and Merlin would just have to do his best to get through the next few days and hope Uther made a speedy recovery.
“Tell me what you think, don’t sugar coat it. You know I hate when people do that,” Arthur said as he nodded at Uther’s chart.
“I’ll be brutal,” Merlin assured him.
“You always were.”
Merlin wasn’t sure how to take that, but rather than think too long on it he looked at Uther’s chart again.
“First the good news; it wasn’t a heart attack, but from what I can see it might be ACS.” Merlin looked up and saw Arthur begin to open his mouth to ask, but he continued before Arthur could even say anything. “Acute Coronary Syndrome. Obstruction of the arteries. But I won’t know for sure until we do some tests. An electrocardiogram first and then we’ll see.”
“What about right now? Is he okay, I mean he woke up for a bit early this morning and said my name but fell right back asleep.”
“He’s fine for now, stable. In fact you should probably go home and get some sleep. Emma said you’ve been here all night and by the looks of you I believe it.”
“So what you’re saying is that I look hideous.”
“You said it.”
Merlin gave him a quick smile. “Really though, Arthur, go home. Sleep.”
Arthur shook his head. “I want to stick around. How long will it take before you can get in him for the electro thing?”
“I’ll go check and see, but if it’s too far off will you go home?”
“You know the answer to that.”
“Of course you won’t.” Merlin gave Arthur a look. “But I’m going to take you down to the canteen and get some food in you.”
“Yeah, fine.” Arthur nodded. “I can do that.”
Merlin reached out and touched Arthur’s arm before he could stop himself. Arthur jumped at the contact and Merlin instantly took his hand away.
“Um, yeah.” Merlin cleared his throat. “I’ll go check on the ECG.”
Merlin hurried out of the room before he could say or do something stupid again. Once he was back out in the hallway with the door safely closed behind him he stopped and looked at his hand. He opened up his fingers and stared down at his palm expecting it to look different, but of course it didn’t. He moved his fingers and willed the tingling feeling away but it stubbornly remained so he squeezed his fingers into a fist and shoved his hand in the pocket of his lab coat.
Enough of that. It was only Arthur. No need to be ridiculous.
“Em, I need to schedule an ECG for Mr. Pendragon,” Merlin said once he made it back over to the nurses’ station and found Emma there at the computer. “What’s the wait time this morning?”
Emma tapped away at the computer then looked up at him with a frown. “Doesn’t look good. Two, maybe three hours?”
“Fuck,” Merlin muttered under his breath.
“Heard that,” Emma said and held out a jar.
Merlin rolled his eyes and started digging in his pockets for a pound note to put in the curse jar. He knew better than to swear around Emma, she had freakishly good hearing.
“The nurses appreciate your contribution to pub night, Dr. Emrys,” she said with false sweetness.
Merlin shoved another pound into the jar before she could put it back and grinned. “Oh fuck off.”
Emma laughed. She was so lovely when she laughed. She was lovely all the time and Merlin sometimes wished he could fall for her. She was always flirting with him and made it perfectly clear that the option was there, but Merlin just couldn’t make himself take the final step and actually ask her out.
But that’s how it had been going for over a year now. He had failed over and over again to take the plunge and find someone new. He’d gone on a few dates that had been set up by his mates who were truly just looking out for him and trying to get him past his Arthur-induced funk, but they never worked out. Merlin always had an excuse. Always. None of them ever made sense either, and everyone knew it, but they humored him nonetheless.
Merlin always felt rather pathetic when they did though. It was always done with such a depressing look of pity that Merlin was truly embarrassed, which led to him insisting - once again - that he was fine. Fine fine fuckity fine.
Worst word ever.
He knew, though, if he told the truth; that sometimes he went for days without sleeping because his flat was too quiet, too absent of Arthur’s breathing to make it bearable, that he could cry in the middle of the market over the sight of a package of Arthur’s favourite biscuits; his friends’ looks of pity would be even worse. The looks would be laced with hopelessness and Merlin couldn’t stand the thought of being deemed a hopeless case.
Merlin looked up to find Emma giving him an odd look.
“Shall I set up the electro then?”
“Yeah. Yeah, set it up, and whatever magic you can work to get him in sooner I’d appreciate it.”
Emma nodded. “I’ll let you know when we can get him in.”
Merlin left Emma at the nurses’ station and headed back to Uther’s room. Arthur was sitting beside the bed watching his father. Merlin knew he was willing him to wake up through his stare alone. Merlin had been on the receiving end of that stare more times than he could count. Arthur operated under the assumption that he could basically will anything into being simply by the power of his own damn stubbornness and tenacity. It was equal parts sexy and frustrating. Merlin always loved Arthur’s confidence, his determination and belief in himself, but when it was directed at Merlin it was a whole other story. He’d get his back up and end up acting like a stroppy child in order to prove Arthur wrong and to not let him get his way.
The two of them were the stubbornest people Merlin knew and it made for proper fits and spectacular fights when they both dug their heels in.
“It’ll be a couple of hours yet, at least.”
Arthur sighed. “I figured as much.”
“Get up. I’m taking you to get food.”
Arthur reluctantly got up and followed Merlin out the door. As they stood outside the lifts waiting for one to show up on their floor Arthur reached out and tapped the frame of Merlin’s glasses.
“Forgot to order your contacts, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did, have you met me?”
“Honestly, Merlin,” Arthur said as he pulled out his mobile and started scrolling through his numbers. “I have no idea how you managed to become a doctor when you can’t even take care of yourself.”
“Maybe I have better things to do, more important doctorly things to do, than to be bothered by getting my contacts ordered.”
“Doctorly things? Whatever. You forgot.”
“My mind, filled with awesome medical things,” Merlin said as he waved his hand over the top of his head.
Arthur rolled his eyes but didn’t say anything else directly to Merlin because whoever he’d called had picked up.
“Hello, yes, Arthur Pendragon here - is that Sally I’m talking to? … Well, and how are you? … Ordering up Merlin’s contacts for him, he seems to have somehow run out. … He hasn’t?”
Arthur looked over at Merlin and Merlin failed to have the good sense to fix his face into a neutral look rather than one of complete surprise. Of course Arthur had Merlin’s optometrist’s number in his phone, he’d always been the one to order Merlin’s contacts anyway, but it surprised Merlin to find out Arthur’d never deleted the number. And now Arthur also knew Merlin hadn’t ordered his own contacts since the last batch Arthur had ordered for him ran out. He’d simply started wearing his glasses and called it a day.
“Absolute scatterbrain,” Arthur continued and Merlin scowled at him. “Might as well set that up for him as well.”
Merlin scowled even more when Arthur snapped his fingers at him.
“Phone,” Arthur mouthed.
Merlin sighed and handed over his mobile to Arthur who proceeded to go searching through it.
“Thursday at two sounds brilliant, Sally, put him in for that day. … Yes, you too. ...I will, and thanks, Sally. ...Uh huh, bye.”
Arthur hung up and finished typing in what he’d started on Merlin’s phone.
“Did you and Sally have a lovely chat?”
“We did. You have an appointment to get your eyes checked for Thursday next. It’s in your diary so there’s no excuse. Your contacts should be here by tomorrow. Sally expedited them.”
“Well isn’t Sally special.”
“You really ought to remember your eye check-ups, you’re blind as a bat.” Arthur ignored Merlin’s comment about Sally.
“Hardly. I can see fine.”
“Yes, hence the contacts and glasses.”
The lift doors opened then - after having missed two prior lift opportunities while Arthur flirted with Sally over contacts and the state of Merlin’s eyeballs - and spared Merlin the indignity of telling Arthur to shut up in a very stroppy voice.
“Oh God, just get in the lift so we can go down to the canteen and I can feed you,” Merlin said as he held out a hand to stop the doors from closing on them yet again.
Once the lift doors closed on them however they were left alone in a weird silence. Both of them stood awkwardly staring straight ahead at the doors and wishing the light descending through the floor buttons would hurry up and go faster. When they were just about to the proper floor Arthur spoke.
“I always did like you in glasses.”
A warmth filled Merlin’s chest. “I know.”
Arthur waited a beat before adding, “They give you the illusion of intelligence you’re so sorely lacking to be taken at all seriously.”
Merlin snorted and whacked Arthur’s chest with the back of his hand. “Shut the fuck up.”
Arthur laughed as he rubbed his chest. They gave each other a quick smile as the doors opened up and they left the confines of the lift.
“Okay. Food.” Merlin said as he pointed Arthur in the right direction.
Once they got to the canteen and Merlin ordered Arthur to sit at a nearby table he went up to gather a tray full of food. He loaded it up with Arthur’s favourites as well as a few extra things in the hopes that Arthur would feel a bit obligated to eat something once he saw how much food Merlin had bought for him. Merlin knew Arthur’s manners usually won out in the end and was totally prepared to use that knowledge against him.
“Did you leave anything up there?” Arthur asked when he saw the tray piled high with food.
“A really dodgy looking apple, but I can go get that too if you’d like.”
“I happen to love dodgy apples.”
Merlin ignored him and got to work on the food. He peeled a banana and started mashing it up so he could mix it into Arthur’s porridge. He worked in silence for a moment or two, hard at work arranging Arthur’s food just the way he liked it, before he sensed Arthur staring a hole into the side of his head.
“What?” Merlin asked.
Arthur just gave him a small smile. “Nothing.”
“Then stop looking at me and eat, you’re creeping me out,” Merlin said as he handed over the bowl of bananas and porridge. “And don’t think you get to eat all of this, some of it is mine too.”
“Thank God,” Arthur said as he scooped up a spoonful of porridge. “I thought you were preparing me for a sacrifice or something.”
Merlin shook his head and leaned back in his chair as he watched Arthur eat. He took a couple of bites of the piece of toast he took from the tray. He wanted to give the illusion he was actually eating like he’d promised rather than keeping a watchful eye on Arthur to make sure he did.
“The waiting is driving me mental.”
“I know it is.”
“And I just want him to wake up. Properly wake up, I mean, not the fifteen seconds he was somewhat coherent early this morning. I want him up and yelling at me.”
“What would Uther be yelling at you about?”
“God, take your pick,” Arthur said as he started in on a plate of eggs.
“Uther never yelled at you.”
“Because I never gave him a reason to before.”
Which was completely true, and had been a bone of contention between the two of them when they had been together. Merlin had always felt that Arthur worked too hard to please his father and not himself. Everything Arthur did, every life choice he made - aside from being with Merlin - was based on what Uther would think.
Arthur let his father run his life and it broke Merlin’s heart at times because he knew so many of the things Arthur did for Uther he’d never have done on his own if given half the chance. Arthur wasn’t the soulless corporate drone Uther wanted him to be, he was brilliant and creative and every minute he spent pretending otherwise made Merlin more and more furious.
Merlin had never understood how Uther could so willfully and completely misread his own son, how he could be so blind to the man Arthur truly was. It was baffling to Merlin, and heartbreaking too because he felt Uther was missing out on knowing the most amazing person he would ever have the good fortune to if he’d only open his eyes.
He had argued with Arthur about it, and he’d argued with Uther about it as well. Merlin knew he was most likely one of Uther’s least favourite people and if it were possible Uther would have long ago murdered him through the power of his annoyed thoughts alone. But Merlin didn’t care. He fought for Arthur, he’d always fight for Arthur, because that’s just what he did. Arthur always thought he had everything under control and that it was all good, but he’d needed a champion and Merlin took the job seriously. Uther could hate him with the passion of a thousand fiery suns for turning his son gay (which he did indeed blame Merlin for) and putting thoughts of a life lived outside an office on the top floor (how dare Merlin not want wealth and prestige for Arthur?) because Uther didn’t matter, not one damn bit, only Arthur mattered.
“What on earth did you do?” Merlin asked.
“I quit my job.”
Merlin had been about to take a bite of toast but he dropped his hand into his lap and stared at Arthur after his statement.
“About a year ago, right after we —” Arthur stopped and shrugged.
“You really quit?”
“Oh my God, Arthur.” Merlin tossed the piece of toast onto the table and leaned forward in his chair. “I can’t even wrap my head around this. I’m so proud of you. So fucking proud of you.”
Before he could stop himself with thoughts of, ’maybe I shouldn’t,’ Merlin reached out and pulled Arthur into a hug. Arthur stiffened under his touch, but Merlin held on, he couldn’t make himself let go, and soon Arthur relaxed and hugged him back. Merlin knew the hug went on a bit too long and that toward the end instead of pulling away as he should have he found his fingers digging into the fabric of Arthur’s shirt and holding on even more tightly.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur whispered.
It was the apology that made Merlin finally pull away from Arthur, he was so fucking confused by it.
“What do you have to be sorry for?”
Arthur shrugged. “For waiting until you were gone. I know you always wanted me to quit, God, we fought about it enough times. I guess I’m just sorry you weren’t there to see it, to see you’d finally gotten through.”
Merlin waved Arthur’s words away. “That doesn’t matter. Not at all. The only thing that matters is that you did it and I’m so proud of you.”
“Leon and I finally went all in.”
“You didn’t.” Merlin was so shocked, so damn happy he was nearly speechless.
“We did. We converted that old garden shed at the back of their property and made it into a studio. Leon writes, I draw. Morgana hovers and feeds us too much and constantly brings Leon cardies for fear he’ll catch a chill out in the, ‘fucking garden shed for fuck’s sake,’ - her words. Like I have no idea how many he has exactly but it’s an astounding number. There’s a new one every day.”
“God, he’s such a fucking old man.”
“You should drop round sometime. Come see where all the nerd magic happens.”
Merlin laughed. He couldn’t believe Arthur remembered Merlin calling it that. Whenever people first met Arthur and himself they always assumed Merlin was the nerd. It was always shocking to them to find out it was Arthur who was in possession of the alarming amount of graphic novels and comic books that inhabited their flat, and that it was Arthur who had the collection of t-shirts with sayings and characters on them that many people couldn’t make heads nor tails of.
The first night they had slept together Merlin had woken up to find Arthur sketching him as a superhero. A really pervy, filthy superhero wearing nothing but boots, a cape, and a half-mask covering his eyes. Arthur had laughingly declared him Captain Cock and started regaling him with his great sexual feats and adventures. Merlin sat next to Arthur in bed all morning and watched him as he madly sketched panel after panel.
Merlin fell in love with Arthur that morning.
And now, sitting next to him as he looked at Merlin with bright, happy eyes Merlin realized he loved him still. That he had been the biggest fucking idiot to think he’d ever be able to stop loving him.
“If you wouldn’t mind?”
“Of course I don’t mind,” Arthur said. “I just asked you, didn’t I?”
“I suppose you did.” Merlin smiled even though he knew he was probably making a huge fucking mistake.
A sudden awkwardness descended on them; Merlin knowing he was stupid to voluntarily put himself into Arthur’s life again, and Arthur seemingly realizing what he’d done in asking Merlin to visit him.
“Yeah,” Arthur said as he started fiddling around with the plates and food in front of him. “You can see Leon and Morgana, I know they’re missing you and would love to see you.”
“Let’s be real, Arthur, Morgana wants to eviscerate me for breaking us up.”
Arthur snorted. “Well, maybe a little bit.”
“A little bit?” Merlin laughed. “How do you gut someone, ‘a little bit’?”
Arthur laughed right along with Merlin. “I have no idea but I’m confident Morgana would find a way.”
“I’ve always found it so sweet how proud you are of your sister.”
“But in a really disturbing way, right?”
Merlin leaned back in his chair and smiled at Arthur. It felt good slipping back into their old routine, their back-and-forth. It had always been so easy between them. Until it wasn’t. Merlin was happy they still had some of their old selves about them.
Merlin’s phone beeped at him and he took it out to find a text from Nathan telling him they were waiting on him to do his rounds.
“Fuck,” he said as he got up from the table. “I’ve got to go. Rounds.”
“Yeah, okay,” Arthur said as he made to get up himself.
“No, you stay. Eat.”
“No, you’re not.” Merlin pointed over at the woman setting more food out on the counter. “That is Kathleen. I’m friends with Kathleen. Kathleen loves me, and if I tell her to watch you and make sure you stay sitting right here until you eat at least three more things on that tray she will. Kathleen can be very mean when she wants to be.”
Arthur looked up at him. “Merlin?”
“Kathleen looks like she’s eighty. And is the size of a hobbit.”
“Mean.” Merlin repeated. “Very very mean.”
“She looks like someone’s gran.”
“Yes, she does. And she will look at you with her dear little gran face and guilt you into any-fucking-thing she wants you to do.”
“And how many times has she used her dear little gran face on you?”
“That’s not the issue here,” Merlin said and Arthur laughed. “Oh, just shut up and eat. I’ll see you later.”
Merlin started to gather up his rubbish to bin it on his way out when Arthur reached over and grabbed his hand.
“He’ll be alright, won’t he?”
Arthur’s voice sounded small and afraid and all Merlin wanted to do was to crawl onto his lap and wrap his arms around him. Whenever Arthur had been upset he had always pulled Merlin down onto his lap and buried his head in the center of Merlin’s chest, like he would be alright if he could just stay hidden there. Merlin would wrap his arms around Arthur’s shoulders, tangle his fingers in Arthur’s hair, and pull his legs up as close to Arthur as he could so he could curl around him like a shield.
Merlin turned his hand around in Arthur’s so they were palm-to-palm.
“He’ll be okay,” he said as he gave Arthur’s hand a squeeze before letting go.
Merlin wasn’t entirely sure he should be making such a statement but he couldn’t stop himself. All he had ever wanted to do was to make everything okay for Arthur.
“He’s such a good boy,” Uther said once Arthur had left the room.
“You should tell him that once in awhile,” Merlin said as he wrote in Uther’s chart.
“Still as opinionated as always, I see.”
“I prefer to think of it as telling it like it is.”
Merlin looked up from the chart when his statement was greeted with silence. He found Uther looking up at him and if it had been anyone other than Uther Pendragon Merlin would’ve said the look was almost fond.
“You were so good for him. I was sorry when the two of you parted ways.”
Merlin could only imagine he did what looked like a comically cartoonish double-take at Uther’s confession. The two of them had always had a contentious relationship and were only able to tolerate one another for Arthur’s sake. Uther had always been stern and judgmental, and determined to make Merlin feel small. Merlin had never let him. Uther hadn’t scared him or intimidated him and sometimes he looked at him with a kind of grudging admiration because of that. But friends they had never been.
“I would’ve thought you’d have thrown a party in celebration.”
“Hardly,” Uther said. “I know you think I’m a tyrant but my son’s heart was broken, that could never have made me happy.”
Merlin sat down in the chair next to Uther’s bed. “I know, I’m sorry. That was harsh of me.”
“I don’t blame you. I was never kind to you, I don’t expect you to think very highly of me.”
“You didn’t make my life especially easy, no, but I still shouldn’t have said that.”
Uther was looking at him intently and it was all Merlin could do to stop himself from squirming in his seat under the scrutiny.
“It’s terribly cliched to be contemplative and emotional simply because I’ve had an episode.”
Merlin snorted, only Uther would call a heart attack scare an ‘episode’. Uther raised an eyebrow at him that would’ve made Merlin’s Uncle Gaius proud.
“As I was saying.” Uther paused and gave Merlin another significant look like he was waiting for him to be rude and interrupt him again. “It’s cliched and undignified but I feel like it needs to be said.”
“Oh Christ, if you tell me you love me I’ll be the one having a heart attack.”
“Apparently. I see you managed to contain your hysterical laughter though. Laughing on the inside perhaps?”
Uther actually smiled at that Merlin was glad he was sitting down because it was a rather frightening sight to behold.
“You never cowed down to me, I liked that about you.”
“You’re not as frightening as you think you are.”
“That fight, that spirit of yours, I admire it. I always liked how you fought me tooth and nail for Arthur.”
“You had a funny way of showing it.”
“You have to understand, it was hard for me to come to terms with Arthur being gay. His mother and I spent so much time while she was pregnant with him imagining the life he would have; that he’d grow up to be successful, be a good husband, a good father, and suddenly all of that went away - at least in the way we had imagined it - and it was difficult for me. I didn’t handle it particularly well and I regret that very much.”
“Have you told Arthur any of this? Because he’s the one you should be telling this to, the things you said and did to me don’t matter, he does though.”
“It’s difficult with him. I figured you could be my trial run.”
Merlin laughed at that and leaned back in his chair as he waved his hand at Uther. “Go ahead then. Practice.”
Merlin could’ve almost sworn Uther rolled his eyes at him.
“Despite my behavior and all signs to the contrary I do like you, Merlin. I have ever since that night we played chess. Do you remember that?”
Merlin smiled to himself. “Of course I do, it’s not everyday one spends a good hour playing chess with the boyfriend’s father while shouting at him. Things like that tend to stick with you.”
Uther chuckled at that, and seriously, Merlin was having a hard time coming to terms with a very nearly emotionally normal Uther.
“Yes, I suppose they do,” he said. “I remember thinking you were uppity, and rude, and I was prepared to continue disliking you greatly —”
“Most people call that, ‘hating’,” Merlin interrupted.
“I was prepared to continue disliking you greatly,” Uther repeated with emphasis. “But you sat there and shouted at me, all the while beating me at chess I might add, and told me you loved my son and nothing I could ever do would change that. You swore you would fight for him every day of your life, until your last breath. I argued back because I didn’t want to give you an inch but in that moment I was so happy Arthur had found you, that he had found someone to love him like I had loved his mother. I recognized myself in you. I don’t know, maybe that’s a great part of why we never got along. Every man wants to think his love is unique, that it’s the only one like it to ever come along, but we’re all terribly the same in the end.”
“It might all be terribly the same but it doesn’t make it any less amazing, does it? Loving Arthur made me alive, made me brave, and that’s something, isn’t it?”
Uther looked at Merlin, again with an intensity that made him uncomfortable.
Horribly disagreeable and stubborn Uther he knew how to deal with, astoundingly profound and insightful Uther was a whole other thing entirely.
One thing he did know though was that he hoped talking to him had helped Uther in some way to come closer to talking to Arthur. There was a world of things that needed to be said there and one conversation was not going to do it. Uther had to be willing to be in it for the long haul. Merlin knew he should stay well enough alone but he could totally see himself phoning up Uther just to be sure he actually went through with it. He’d hoped the entire eleven years he and Arthur were together that Uther would make an effort to make things right with his son and now that the possibility was on the table Merlin wasn’t going to let it pass. It didn’t matter that he and Arthur were no longer together, it only mattered that Arthur get the father he deserved.
Merlin was curled up on the sofa trying to stay awake to watch a show in actual time and not days later after everyone else had already spoiled him for it. When his mobile started ringing he hoped it wasn’t someone at work calling him in.
He looked down only to see Arthur’s face smiling up at him. He hadn’t seen that picture in so long he almost started to cry at the sight of it. He’d taken it ages ago as he’d straddled Arthur’s hips and looked down at him as he laid rumpled and sleepy and perfect amongst all their pillows and sheets. He remembered swearing he’d find a password for his phone that Arthur wouldn’t be able to guess so he couldn’t change his picture to one of himself picking his nose, or of his left nipple, like he’d done before. He also remembered how much it used to irritate him that Arthur always, always, managed to figure out Merlin’s passwords to things. No matter what he used Arthur would figure it out. It had fucked him off so badly then but it was only now that he realized how wholly they had lived inside each other, and just how lucky they were to not know where one ended and the other began.
“Arthur?” He hated how he made Arthur’s name sound like a question, like he didn’t already know it was him.
“Yeah, it’s me. Hey.”
“Did I wake you?”
“No, I just got home not too long ago.”
“Good. Good, I didn’t want to wake you.”
There was an awkward silence and Merlin started to nervously twist at one of the threads that was sticking out of the hole in his jeans at his knee. He needed new jeans. Why he was thinking that now was beyond him.
“I wanted to thank you,” Arthur finally said. “For everything you did for me today, and my dad.”
“Arthur, there’s no need.”
“I know it’s your job and all —”
“It’s not only that,” Merlin interrupted Arthur.
There was another short, awkward silence before Arthur spoke again.
“Yes. Well. Thank you anyway.”
Merlin wanted to say, ‘you’re welcome,’ but he couldn’t do it. Didn’t Arthur know he’d do anything for him? That everything at the hospital was a just a drop in the bucket?
“Would you still want to drop round sometime?” Arthur tentatively asked when Merlin stayed silent.
“Yes. Yes, of course I would.”
“Do you have a spare moment? We’re good at any time, it’s whatever works for you.”
“I”ve actually got Tuesday off, I could come by then?”
“Yeah. Great. Tuesday would be brilliant.”
“Around ten maybe?”
Merlin could hear the smile in Arthur’s voice and he closed his eyes to try to imagine it.
“Thank you for inviting me,” Merlin said.
“Of course. No problem.”
“No, I mean it. It means a great deal to me and I want you to know that. You didn’t have to invite me and I appreciate it that you did.”
“Merlin, why wouldn’t I invite you?”
“Well we haven’t exactly been on speaking terms for the last year and a half.”
“But you’re the reason I am where I am. If you hadn’t pushed me all those years, believed in me, I’d never have gone through with it. I’d still be working with my father. I’d still be miserable. I’m just sorry I waited until you were gone.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Merlin said. “I’m just happy you did it, and now I get to see it.”
“I suppose so.”
“See, it all worked out.”
Arthur laughed. “You’ve gotten surprisingly wise over the last year and a half.”
“Oy. Not surprising. I was always wise.”
“Well you did date me for over a decade, so that’s all in your favor.”
“Fuck off.” Merlin laughed.
Merlin could hear Arthur’s quiet laughter. It felt intimate coming through his phone, right there in his ear like those times they laid in bed talking; Arthur’s mouth next to his ear, his breath warm against Merlin’s skin and Arthur’s words vibrating through him.
“I suppose I should go, let you get some sleep,” Arthur said.
“No,” Merlin felt like he had shouted into the phone and tried to modulate his voice when he spoke again. “No, don’t go. I want to talk some more, tell me what you’ve been doing aside from work.” Merlin closed his eyes and added, “I missed your voice.”
It sounded like Arthur cleared his throat and his voice almost cracked when he answered Merlin.
“I missed your voice too.”
“So. Talk to me,” Merlin said. “Unless you’re busy?”
“No, I’m not busy.”
And again there was that smile in Arthur’s voice.
He knew it was stupid but that one phone call had turned everything around. He was walking with the proverbial spring in his step and everything just seemed better somehow. It helped to remember Arthur was out there in the world. Merlin thought he had maybe tried too hard to forget that fact in a misguided attempt to make things easier.
It obviously hadn’t worked.
Merlin saw Arthur again, briefly, two days later when they released Uther from hospital. They had somehow managed to miss one another whenever Arthur would come to visit Uther, but Merlin had to go over Uther’s medication and instructions for what he could and couldn’t do over the course of the next few weeks. Naturally Uther argued every point while Arthur kept catching Merlin’s eye and grinning.
He had tried to act professional but he ended up laughing and getting another scolding from Uther. The meeting had gone by far too quickly and Merlin ended up counting the hours until he could see Arthur again.
Merlin ended up nervously twiddling his thumbs as he rode the train out to Leon and Morgana’s. He wasn’t quite sure why he was so nervous - not that having to tackle Morgana for the first time in months wasn’t nerve-wracking in itself - but a small part of him was worried that seeing Arthur happy would only prove he had been right. That breaking up with Arthur had been the right choice and that he was better off without Merlin. The thought made his heart clench painfully.
Of course he wanted Arthur to be happy and well, that had been the whole point of the break-up, but it didn’t make it any less difficult than it had been then.
Merlin hadn’t expected anyone to meet him at the station. He’d been to the house many times with Arthur, but when he stepped down onto the platform he saw Arthur standing there waiting for him. He couldn’t stop himself from smiling.
“Did you think I’d get lost?” Merlin asked as he walked up to Arthur.
“I’ve been here before, you know.”
“You did get lost in Tesco that one time.”
“I did not get lost. I just couldn’t find the pasta.”
“Merlin, I was called over the intercom to come and collect you at the service desk.”
“I told you, I forgot my phone and I didn’t know where you’d gotten off to. I figured paging you was the easiest option.”
“So you’re either lost or incredibly lazy - take your pick.”
Merlin gave Arthur’s shoulder a good shove. “I’m going with - you exaggerate.”
“Well, it serves me well in my new profession.”
Merlin looked over and saw Arthur smile when he said, ‘new profession’. It was amazing to see, Arthur smiling over work and not looking resigned and tired. Merlin reached out and gave Arthur’s arm a squeeze as he smiled back at him.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Arthur said.
“So am I.”
“I know you won’t believe me when I tell you Morgana is excited to see you.” Merlin snorted at that. “But I will say that Leon is over the moon, although I’m fairly certain he’s just dying to show off Natalie to you.”
“Oh God, Natalie, that’s what they named her?” It tore at Merlin that he didn’t know what his friends had named their baby.
“Natalie Rose. Leon claims the Rose is after his grandmother but you know he has a thing for Billie Piper.”
“She could have very well been Natalie Ten. I don’t care what he says, he has a thing for Tennant too. I think she got the better end of things.”
“I think he’s saving Ten for when they have a boy. Obviously.”
Merlin laughed. Arthur turned to look at him and joined in.
“How are Ellie and Mithian doing?”
“Oh God, spending a frightening amount of time planning with Morgana for their children’s future wedding. They plan on theirs marrying Natalie when the two of them grow up. So, fingers crossed for a boy or a lesbian - they’re not picky.”
Merlin laughed again. “Mithian’s doing well though?”
“She’s an absolute bruiser.” Arthur smiled. “I’m so proud of her.”
“I’m so happy everything finally worked out for them. They had been trying for so long.”
“So am I, especially after the last time.”
“What happened?” Merlin asked.
“They were both so upset, which was expected. I mean to go through that five times.” Arthur stopped for a second and shook his head. “They were absolutely shattered —”
Arthur trailed off again but Merlin knew there was more to it than Elena and Mithian being upset.
“You don’t have to say anything more, it’s not my business.”
Arthur turned to him. “Of course it’s your business, they’re your friends as well.”
“I haven’t seen them as much lately as I should have.”
“That doesn’t make you less of a friend though.”
“But it makes me feel like one.”
They walked for a block or two in silence before Arthur spoke again.
“They asked me,” Arthur said. “To be a donor, I mean.”
Merlin’s heart dropped at the thought that Arthur was having a baby with Elena and Mithian, that he’d made this massive life decision and Merlin had been completely unaware of it.
“I said no,” Arthur said when he noticed Merlin’s shocked silence. “I felt horrible, like the worlds biggest arsehole but I just couldn’t do it.”
Merlin looked over at Arthur. “You said no?” he asked, his voice choked.
Arthur didn’t look back at him, he just kept walking. “I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I was all ready to say yes because I love them both so much and I wanted to help them, I really did, but I couldn’t say yes.”
“Even though El and Mithian would be the parents I knew if I said yes that the baby would be mine as well, that they’d want me in its life, and I realized I didn’t want to be. I didn’t want a child.”
Merlin knew that was a lie, the two of them had talked about kids, not seriously but they had talked. Merlin always knew that even though Arthur tried to play it off as a casual discussion it was more to him, it was something he truly wanted. And it made Merlin want it too because he knew what an amazing father Arthur would be.
“But we talked —” Merlin said.
“I know, I just —” Arthur finally turned to look at him. “I only ever wanted them with you.”
Merlin felt his throat tighten and all he could do was look back at Arthur and nod as he whispered, “Me too.”
Arthur turned away from Merlin. “It hurt so much to say no to them, but I just couldn’t do it. So I’m thrilled they finally got pregnant, finally got what they fought so hard for.”
“It’s a miracle, isn’t it?” Merlin asked.
“Maybe,” Arthur said, “Or maybe they just stuck together and fought hard enough to make it happen.”
Merlin didn’t say anything, he didn’t think there was really anything he could say that wouldn’t make them both feel unbearably sad.
“I’ll yell at your properly later, but for now just let me hug you,” she said into his ear.
Merlin hugged her even more tightly after she said that. “Looking forward to it.”
“Oh, you say that now,” she said as she pulled away from him.
Merlin smiled at her as he got pulled into another hug from Leon.
“Ah, who’s this now?” Merlin asked as he looked down at the little bundle that Leon was nearly squishing between the two of them.
“This is Natalie.” Leon couldn’t keep the pride from his voice. Merlin watched as Leon looked down at her and gently brushed at her tiny little patch of wispy hair. He looked absolutely besotted and Merlin smiled.
“He never puts her down. I’m lucky if I get to hold her twice a day,” Morgana said.
Leon snorted. “She exaggerates.”
“Pendragons always do,” Merlin agreed, but gave Morgana a wink behind Leon’s back as he led them into the house.
“Seriously, he won’t even let me change her nappies. I’m actually pleased about that bit, but he’s just the slightest bit obsessed.”
Merlin looked past Morgana’s shoulder to see Arthur pointing at her and mouthing, ’Pot, kettle.’ Merlin grinned, but quickly schooled his features when Morgana looked over at him.
“Have you painted? I don’t remember this color in here,” Merlin asked nonchalantly.
“Don’t act like Arthur didn’t just mouth something behind my back, but whatever, feel free to settle right back into your old routines. Always giving me grief.”
“So put upon,” Arthur said as he frowned at Morgana.
“I am. All of you boys gang up on me. Good thing I have Natalie on my side now.”
Arthur ignored her and plucked at Merlin’s sleeve. “Let’s go out back.”
“God yes, go. Go,” Leon said. “It’s all he’s talked about the past four days.”
Arthur rolled his eyes at Leon as he led them all out to the back garden and the small building he and Leon had converted to their work space.
Merlin was a bit speechless when Arthur opened the door for him. The space was small, yes, but it was cosy and warm. There were two drafting tables set up on opposite sides of the room and a wood stove set against the wall between them. There were bookshelves full of comics and graphic novels and boxes of supplies - Merlin could see Morgana’s manic devotion to organization written all over it - with a reading corner complete with comfy chair. A small kitchenette was also set up and Merlin could imagine the refrigerator was full of bottles of the green tea Leon was obsessed with.
But the thing that made Merlin almost drop to the floor and cry was the wall on Arthur’s side of the room. A line ran straight down the middle of it; one side white, the other side orange.
Merlin was pretty sure a small gasp of a sob escaped him as he threw himself at Arthur and pulled him into a tight hug. Arthur was momentarily shocked under the onslaught of Merlin’s limbs but he soon recovered and wrapped his own arms around Merlin. Merlin was vaguely aware of Morgana and Leon moving away and trying to act occupied with something in the kitchenette as he and Arthur stayed holding onto one another far longer than was necessary.
“I told you orange was brilliant,” Merlin whispered.
“Yeah. Well.” Arthur’s laughter was quiet and close and it sent a shiver down Merlin’s spine.
Merlin felt one of Arthur’s hands twist up and tug at his shirt at the small of his back for just a second before Arthur stepped back and pulled out of the hug. Merlin quickly scrubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands before putting on an overly bright smile and making a big production out of looking around.
“It’s wonderful, it really is. You both should be proud,” Merlin said, his voice just a bit too loud.
Leon, brave soul, stepped in and started showing Merlin around the room in an effort to break up the weird moment and bring some normality back to the situation.
“Morgana pops round to bring us tea every now and again, even though we’ve got a kettle right over there,” Leon said. “You know how nosy she is, but Arthur and I pretend like she isn’t snooping.”
“Whatever. Half the time I’m out here looking to see where my child has gone off to since that one there,” Morgana pointed at Leon, “keeps her strapped to his back as he works. Poor thing is out here shivering with cold.”
“For god's sake, it’s a million degrees in here most of the time,” Arthur said.
“Still. She’s out here with you two soaking up your nonsense through osmosis, do you really want that on your heads? That she ends up like either one of you, talking about how many moons there are in Middle Earth? All the other kids will laugh at her.”
“Why would we be talking about the moons in Middle Earth?” Leon asked. “That’s not even a conversation.”
Morgana and Leon’s conversation soon devolved into an argument about sci-fi versus fantasy and how nothing Morgana says makes sense, Merlin didn’t want to have any part of it so he turned to Arthur instead.
“Show me your work?”
Arthur brought him over to his drafting table and showed him his drawing, everything was in various stages of completion but it was all Arthur. Merlin could recognize Arthur’s style anywhere and each piece was beautiful. He stood and listened as Arthur told him the plotline of the graphic novel series he and Leon had created, the words washing over him in a warm wave. Merlin couldn’t stop touching the lines on the panels Arthur had created, or looking up at his face to see it nearly glow with excitement.
It was all so very perfect, and everything he had ever wanted for Arthur.
Merlin was absolutely enthralled by the world they had created. He knew he wasn’t the best judge of the genre since he had never properly read any graphic novels but he was swept up in the story and was convinced of the fact that Arthur and Leon were quite brilliant.
Arthur was hunched over his table, headphones on, and working intently. Leon was messing around on his laptop at his. Merlin wasn’t entirely sure Leon was actually working but he was giving Merlin time to read. Merlin knew Arthur was nervous about what he thought about the novels and that was the reason for his intense focus on his work, but Leon was clearly just messing about until Merlin let him know he was finished.
Merlin got to the end of the last one and saw the small ‘AP’ in the left-hand corner of the final panel that Arthur always used to sign his work. He must have sighed because Leon turned around and looked at him. He didn’t say anything and Merlin just shrugged and shook his head, he didn’t have the words.
“His work is pretty amazing, isn’t it?” Leon asked.
Merlin was still looking down at the ‘AP’ and tracing it with his fingers. “I just — Everything was brilliant; his art, your story.”
Leon sat staring at him for a while without saying anything before he leaned forward and quietly asked, “You didn’t notice it, did you?”
“Notice what?” Merlin asked as he looked up.
Leon reached out. “Hand me an issue, doesn’t matter which one.”
Merlin handed over the one he was holding and Leon flipped through it to a page somewhere in the middle.
“Right page, second panel, crowd scene. Hand me another,” Leon said as he handed back the issue he was holding in exchange for another one.
Merlin looked at the second panel as Leon started flipping through the next issue. He had no idea what he was looking for until he saw it, right there and glaringly obvious. His face. Staring right back at him. Merlin looked up at Leon as he handed him the next issue.
“First panel, left side.”
And there he was again, this time a customer in a diner.
“You’re in every issue,” Leon said. “The fans talk about it on the boards all the time. They have theories about who you are. Arthur doesn’t read the boards because they freak him out so he has no idea they’ve even noticed.”
“Every single one. You’re like Where’s Waldo.”
“I didn’t even notice,” Merlin said.
“Half the time I don’t think he does either.” Leon nodded in Arthur’s general direction. “I have this fantastic storyline for you, the fans would go nuts, but it’ll never happen because I’ll never tell him about it. I’d never make him have to draw you. I’d rather he just carry on as he is; knowing, but not knowing, if that makes sense?”
“It makes sense,” Merlin whispered.
Leon stood up. “Come, walk with me for a minute.”
Merlin looked over at Arthur. He gave no indication that he’d heard anything other than the music pumping through his headphones but Merlin knew Leon had more to say that he didn’t want Arthur to hear so Merlin followed him.
They walked out into the garden, Morgana and Leon lived enough on the fringe of town to have the space for a proper garden. When they had first moved in everyone made fun of the place being an old country house and what in the world would Morgana do without her shops and spas and museums close at hand. No one other than Leon and Arthur knew what a country girl she really was at heart and of course neither one had been particularly surprised by her choice of homes.
“I’m going to sound like an absolute dick saying this,” Leon started, “and I want you to know I love you, but this needs to be said.”
“You’re making me nervous.”
Leon shoved his hands in his pockets and looked at Merlin. “Are you back?”
“What do you mean?”
“Are you back for good? Are you going to be hanging out with us again, with Arthur?”
Merlin felt defensive all of a sudden and wrapped his arms around himself. “I don’t know. I haven’t gotten that far, I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“That’s what I have a problem with, your not knowing what you’re doing,” Leon said. “If you’re back here to be friends that’s nice and all, but I want you to stop.”
“No, just hear me out. Please.”
“Fine. Go,” Merlin said as looked away from Leon, not at all prepared for what he was going to say.
“Arthur’s still not over you, I think that’s obvious to you now. At least I hope it’s obvious because it’s obvious to everyone else. And it’s been not fine, but it’s better with you out of the picture, with the way things have been. The two of you avoiding one another. It needs to stay that way if Arthur’s to have a chance to get over you. If you’re back in his life, even as his friend, he’s going to continue on as he is and none of us want that.”
“He’s my best friend, Leon.”
“I know he is, and you must know how much I hate saying this to you but you broke his heart - and you’ll keep breaking it if you stick around now. You can’t expect things to be okay that way.”
Merlin’s throat tightened up. “I miss him so much.”
“Yes, but how do you miss him? Do you miss him just as a friend, or is it more? You’ve got to make up your mind, Merlin. The two of you fucked up when you called it quits and I’m not afraid to tell you that. Arthur never talked to us about it, and I don’t expect him to, that was between the two of you, but somewhere along the line the both of you must have realized you made a mistake.”
Merlin wanted to tell Leon he knew all along it was a mistake, but that would’ve been a lie. He had truly believed he and Arthur were doing right by one another when they broke up. They were getting out of a relationship gone stagnant, they were walking away before they truly started hating one another. They’d both agreed. It had made so much sense at the time. It wasn’t until the reality of it had set in; the absolutely shattering emptiness of Arthur’s absence, that Merlin realized they had been so fucking stupid to give up so easily. But by then Merlin’s stubbornness had set in; he wasn’t going to be the one that begged to be taken back, Arthur had agreed to the break up too, it hadn’t only been Merlin, so obviously Arthur had wanted out. Merlin hadn’t wanted to be rejected.
“Of course we made a mistake,” Merlin said. “But Arthur didn’t exactly come back to me, you know.”
“Did you really expect him to?” Leon asked. “You know him, you know he stayed away because he thought that’s what you wanted and he’d do anything for you, even walk away, if that’s what you wanted.”
“And I —”
“ — would do the same for him,” Leon finished Merlin’s sentence. “Which is why you’re both such massive idiots.”
“If you knew I was still in love with him then why the hell did you tell me to leave him alone?”
“I figured I’d best say something to piss you off otherwise the two of you would dick around for another year and a half, and none of us want that.”
“You’re such a twat.”
“Well it was either me or Morgana having this little chit-chat with you so let’s be real here, you got the better end of the stick.”
“Oh Christ, yes. Thank you for that, at least.”
“See, things could always be worse.”
Merlin wanted to make a smart-arse comment but what came out instead was a quiet, “How do I get him back, Leon? What do I say to make up for a year and a half?”
“I think probably an, ’I love you,’ will do it. Simple. To the point.”
“Like it’s that easy.”
“Some things actually are, mate,” Leon said as he gave Merlin’s shoulder a squeeze then turned him around so he was facing the open doorway of their workroom where Arthur was standing watching them. “Go put the poor lad out of his misery, he’s been hovering there with two tea mugs for the better part of our conversation. He looks pathetic.”
“He’s not the only one,” Merlin muttered under his breath, although not that well because Leon laughed at him.
“Go on,” Leon said as he gave Merlin a shove. “Fix this so the rest of us can carry on with our lives and forget about the two of you.”
“You make it sound like all you lot do is sit around and fret about Arthur and me.”
“Yeah that’s basically it, and I’ve got to tell you, mate, the conversation is getting old.”
Merlin made a face at Leon but did start heading over in Arthur’s direction. He and Leon had been far enough away that Arthur hadn’t heard any of their conversation but he had an anxious look on his face anyway.
“Thought you might like a cuppa,” Arthur said as he held out a mug.
“Yeah, cheers.” Merlin smiled at him.
“I’m heading over there—” Arthur moved his mug around in the general area to his right. “Been cooped up long enough, need a bit of a break.”
“Sure, okay,” Merlin said as he followed Arthur.
Arthur walked for a few yards before heading over to the old swing set that was in the back of Leon and Morgana’s property. Merlin remembered making his way out to those same swings on several drunken nights; swinging like mad as he looked up at the stars and made himself dizzy.
“Leon wants to tear it down,” Arthur said as he sat down on one of the swings. “He thinks it’s some sort of death trap that will swallow Natalie up whole. I told him you managed not to kill yourself on several occasions, and mostly while drunk. Somehow that wasn’t a ringing endorsement for the swings.”
Merlin laughed and sat down on the other swing. “I can’t imagine why not.”
“I know. I mean if you can manage them I’m pretty sure a toddler will be able to when the time comes.”
“You’re such an arse.”
Arthur smiled at him and Merlin wondered how he ever thought they were better apart than together.
They drank their tea as they swung slowly back and forth. It was comfortable, easy, and Merlin knew Leon was right; some things were as simple as that.
Merlin put down his feet so he stopped swinging and twisted to the right so he could see Arthur.
“I still love you.”
Arthur didn’t say anything right away, he just let his swing come to a stop, but Merlin watched as another smile spread across his face; brilliant and happy and contented.
Merlin stretched out his leg and hooked it around the back of Arthur’s pulling him closer. Arthur looked up at him as he reached out for the chain of Merlin’s swing.
“This isn’t drunk swinging talking, now is it?” Arthur asked.
Merlin laughed and tugged Arthur closer, reached out for him.
“Absolutely sober swinging,” Merlin said.
“Good,” Arthur said, so close to Merlin now that he could feel Arthur’s breath on his lips.
“Help me fix us?” Merlin asked.
Arthur leaned in that last little bit until they were kissing; like they had never stopped, like they never would. And Merlin remembered how he had found his home the first time he’d felt the press of Arthur’s lips against his own; when Arthur’s mouth had tasted like beer and they’d laughed more than they kissed, when he had been nineteen and fearless and believed with all of his heart that forever was a possible thing.
But Arthur had always made everything seem possible.
Merlin felt Arthur’s thumbs brush underneath his eyes and it was then he realized he’d started crying. He swiped his fingers underneath them as well and let out a choked laugh.
“God, I’m crying.”
Arthur pressed a kiss just beneath Merlin’s right eye, and another on his cheek.
“I missed you,” Arthur said. “Every day.”
Merlin unwrapped his leg from around Arthur’s and set his mug down on the ground before grabbing Arthur’s and doing the same with it. He got up from his swing so he could crawl onto Arthur’s lap. He wedged his knees between the outside of Arthur’s hips and the swing chains so he could get as close to Arthur as possible as he wrapped his arms around Arthur’s neck and held on for dear life. One of those tight, clinging, I’m-never-letting-go-of-you, hugs. When Arthur’s arms came around his waist Merlin only curled his fingers into Arthur’s shirt more tightly.
“Promise me you won’t let go of me again,” Merlin said. “No matter what stupid things I might say.”
“I promise,” Arthur said. “If you forgive me for letting you go the first time.”
Merlin wanted to say he’d forgive Arthur anything from there on out, but he didn’t want to give Arthur free reign for the rest of their lives. He would no doubt abuse it horribly, but the thought made Merlin smile.
Merlin pulled back from hugging Arthur, but kept his hands cupped around Arthur’s jaw.
“I’ll forgive you that,” he said, “but I’m still not forgiving you for throwing out my striped jumper.”
“Honestly, Merlin, that was six years ago. Let it go.”
“It was my favourite jumper.”
“It was black and yellow, it made you look like a really gangly bumblebee. And it had holes.”
“I’ve never been able to find one I love as much.”
“That’s not a bad thing, you do realize.”
“You have no sense of style, Arthur. I despair sometimes, I really do.”
“I love how you think you have a sense of style. The bargain bin isn’t a style choice.”
“My mother knitted me that jumper.”
“Your mother did not knit you that jumper.”
“Okay, so I exaggerate, let’s just add that to the list of things we need to sort out,” Merlin said as he kissed Arthur again. “Later though.”
“Much much later.”
“No matter what though,” Merlin said as he brushed his thumb across Arthur’s lower lip, “I do love you more than my striped jumper.”
Arthur laughed and Merlin smiled, so happy to have that sound back in his life.
“Well,” Arthur said, “that’s all I can ask for, isn’t it?”